By JONATHAN TILOVE
January 10, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) In September 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy for three of the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. What King could not know was that, within earshot of the blast, just blocks away at her father’s church, was another little black girl, a friend of the youngest victim, who 42 years later would be on the verge of becoming America’s foremost diplomat.
This year, the Martin Luther King holiday, marking what would have been his 76th birthday, falls on Jan. 17. The next day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opens hearings on the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to succeed Colin Powell as secretary of state.
It’s a stunning juxtaposition that offers those who knew King, lived that history and ponder his legacy an opportunity to wonder: How might they explain Rice’s rise to him? And what would he make of it?
She is, after all, the literal fulfillment of King’s dream _ a woman judged not by the color of her skin but by the content of her character. She is also living proof that King’s eulogy was prescient, that “these children _ unoffending, innocent and beautiful _ did not die in vain.”
“I would hold her up as a standard for all young black women,” says the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the fearless civil rights leader who brought King to Birmingham. And yet Shuttlesworth believes the president Rice serves has got it wrong: “I just don’t think bombing people makes them love you.”
And there it is for many of King’s disciples _ profound pride at the scale of Rice’s success, measured against the deepest doubts about the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
On Christmas night 1956 Shuttlesworth’s church was blown up. He emerged, unhurt, from the rubble. This was the Birmingham _ “Bombingham” _ where Rice grew up. The dynamiting of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which took the life of her friend Denise McNair, was only the most famous, the most heinous act of a very long reign of terror.
That a national security adviser and designated secretary of state in this age of global terror should be someone who survived what she has called “the home-grown terrorism of the 1960s” is striking and, in her view, fitting.
As she told the National Association of Black Journalists two summers ago, those who think the Iraqis are unready or uninterested in freedom are echoing the racist appraisal of blacks when she was growing up. “The view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad,” she said.
But for others, as Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams wrote in The Nation in December, it is unseemly to invoke the memory of the martyred girls in the name of policies that seem so at odds with the spirit of the movement for which they gave their lives.
“If it’s nice to see a black face in high places,” wrote Williams, who identified with Rice’s exacting black middle-class striving, “that pleasure is more than outweighed by Rice’s deployment as spokeswoman for an unprecedented policy of pre-emptive war _ the public face of an undisciplined, frightened, chaotically managed yet supposedly libratory force that thoughtlessly bombs mosques with unarmed civilians inside.”
Still, she wrote, “Nobody `hates’ Condoleezza Rice.”
“One of the things I’ve thought about a lot is why I feel differently about her than I would about some black conservatives,” says Clayborne Carson, the historian chosen by Coretta Scott King to direct the King Papers Project at Stanford University, where Rice served as provost before joining the Bush administration. “I think the heart of the difference is that she was always part of the black community.”
But Roger Wilkins, who in 1968, as head of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, was sent by President Johnson the day after King’s assassination to talk to his widow, believes Rice owes a debt to King, one best paid to those he cared most about at his life’s end _ the poor. King, Wilkins believes, would want Rice to understand that “there’s a lot more to being black in America than just succeeding.”
In a profile that appeared in The Washington Post Magazine the Sunday before Sept. 11, 2001, Rice portrayed herself not so much as the product of the movement to end segregation, which she suggested was already coming undone, as of her family’s ability to surmount it and prepare her, their only child, for the opportunities freedom would bring.
Her mother, Angelena, was a teacher. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., was both a minister with his own church and guidance counselor at Ullman High School. (When Rice was 11, he became a college administrator and moved the family first to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and later to Denver.)
“She’s a great American story about the power of education and the progress we’ve made,” says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Hrabowski, a few years older than Rice, was a student at Ullman. There he was mentored by her father and by the school’s principal, George Bell, an uncle to Alma Powell, whose father, R.C. Johnson was the principal of another black high school in Birmingham. Back in 1963, Alma and her baby were living with Johnson while her husband, Colin Powell, who would become Rice’s predecessor and the first black secretary of state, was in Vietnam.
A great story indeed, Hrabowski says. But he cautions, as King might, that with so many blacks still poor and poorly educated, it is not the whole story: “We see progress that few people could have imagined and yet we see challenges as great as ever.”
Unlike Hrabowski, who was jailed at 12 marching with King, the Rices kept their distance from the movement, which calculatedly placed innocents in evil’s way in order to move America. “My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher,” Rice told the Post. “He saw no reason to put children at risk.”
In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written in April 1963, King chided the “few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”
But Shuttlesworth does not fault John Rice, on whom he always felt he could count for behind-the-scenes counsel and support. “He was a cautious man,” Shuttlesworth says, but “he was a good friend of mine.”
Joanne Bland, director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala., does not count Rice’s daughter a friend.
“She is not us,” says Bland, who grew up in the George Washington Carver Homes on what now is Martin Luther King Street in Selma, and was arrested in March 1965, at 11, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
Earlier that year, King, Shuttlesworth and John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, became the first blacks to check into Selma’s Hotel Albert. On registering, King was assaulted by Jimmy George Robinson, a white racist from Birmingham.
Forty years later to the day come Rice’s confirmation hearings.
“It’s testimony to what the movement did,” says Joseph T. Smitherman, who was Selma’s mayor in 1965, defeated only in 2000. “The changes it brought would have eventually come, but it would have been years and years.”
For Denise McNair’s father, talking about Condoleezza Rice brings home what was gained and what he lost.
“Denise was my only daughter at the time, and (she and Rice) were in the same kindergarten at the Presbyterian church where her daddy was pastor,” Chris McNair says from Birmingham. “She’d be 53 today. You do wonder what she would have been doing. She was always a leader.”
McNair has followed Rice’s career and even visited her for a few minutes at her White House office a couple of years back. Her politics are not his, he says, but “I take my hat off to her,” and to Bush for nominating her.
But McNair notes the irony that just this past Nov. 2, Alabamans voted narrowly against removing antiquated language from the state Constitution requiring separate schools for “white and colored children.”
On Jan. 17, he will be the keynote speaker at Valparaiso (Indiana) University’s annual Martin Luther King convocation. His speech is titled “Birmingham and the Unfinished Agenda.”